Ignorant Bliss or Blind Ignorance

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Genesis3:7 (NIV)

The adage, “What you don’t know can hurt you” has spawned countless public service announcements that promote various causes. School fire prevention and safety assemblies are examples. Children learn about the dangers of fire and smoke inhalation. They also learn strategies for surviving a fire. Because of fire safety education, nearly every American kindergartener recites and acts out the mantra, “stop, drop, and roll.”

Likewise, others develop campaigns for sharing information with children about avoiding “stranger danger.”   Children participate in interactive lessons that show them different ways to recognize danger and to reduce the chances of getting kidnapped.  Similarly, supporters of sex education believe such classes reduce both unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (opponents disagree).  Black History Month advocates, myself included, believe one way to dispel racial stereotypes about Blacks is to highlight the inventions and other contributions Black Americans have made to the betterment of society.

But, there are those who believe too much information is unhealthy and does more harm than good. They argue that sex education robs children of their innocence and encourages them to become sexually active. They also believe sex education gives children a false sense of security, thus increasing the chances of children beginning at an early age to engage in risky sexual behaviors. Others even assert that teaching very young children about fire prevention only serves as a catalyst for some children to experiment with fire to see if what they have been told is true.

The following true story coupled with the passage from Genesis 3:7 illustrate the power of both sides of the argument for and against the saying, “What you don’t know can hurt you.”

For nearly three years during my late twenties and early thirties I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building in Hoensbroek, Holland.  On Saturday afternoons I frequently rode my bicycle to Heerlen where I parked it and took a train to Maastricht where I shopped and relaxed.  I reveled in the culture of Maastricht. There I observed and absorbed an aspect of Dutch culture that differed from the serenity of Hoensbroek, where I lived

One of my favorite things to do was to sit on a bench near the train station and read, meditate, and write poetry. On a nice day I might sit there for a few hours. Because I frequented the area often, I came to recognize some of the people who, like me, hung around the station on Saturday afternoons. (We developed the kind of informal acquaintances similar to those I have with people I regularly encounter at the supermarket, Laundromat, or drug store.)  We exchanged greetings and on occasion we engaged in brief conversations. Unfortunately, I knew very little Dutch and was extremely uncomfortable about speaking the little Dutch that I knew. Therefore, our conversations were limited.

I prefer travelling alone, so I usually I went to Maastricht by myself. However, one Saturday I went with an American friend-Delores, from Newark, New Jersey. I’m not sure which of us suggested she accompany me. What I do recall is that her husband, Wayne, and son, Eric, were out of the country and Delores had said she was bored. So she made the trip to Maastricht with me.  I looked forward to sharing a shopping experience with her.

The train ride was uneventful. As we headed out of the Maastricht train station I gleefully showed Delores where I usually sat and meditated.  I also proudly identified some of the people around the train station with whom I had become acquainted.

As was our usual custom, my acquaintances and I exchanged friendly greetings. It was during one of those exchanges that Delores grabbed my arm and said, “Oh my God, Allegra these people are a bunch of drug addicts and prostitutes.”   I was stunned, perplexed, and hurt by her characterization. Those people had always been polite and respectful towards me. I had not witnessed any evidence of unsavory behavior on their part.  When I said that to Delores, she began pointing out things that I had seen hundreds of times, but had not really noticed.

At some point, she said, “Look Allegra, those women are prostitutes.”  “Watch them.”  For the first time it was obvious to me that they were selling sex. A group of women stood near the curb. A car would pull up and a woman would get in and return later. I don’t know why I had not noticed before.  Delores also pointed out the unmistakable characteristics of a heroin addict-the nodding off whether sitting or standing was obvious. Somehow I had missed the signs of addiction that later struck fear in me.

I don’t know why I was petrified of the addicts at the train station. Prior to that day I had known heroin addicts. I liked them and had enjoyed socializing with them. Never once did I feel threatened when in their presence-although, perhaps I should have.

For months we had comfortably shared the benches in the square, exchanged greetings, and demonstrated respect towards each other.  I don’t know whether ignorant bliss had sheltered me, or blind ignorance had prevented me from seeing what was going on around the Maastricht train station. But, once I became aware my perspective of and attitude about the place changed.  It was no longer a place where I felt safe. The few times I went back I walked quickly and purposefully to and from the station.  I avoided making eye contact with others. When our eyes met accidently I smiled and hurried away. I had become afraid of them.  I don’t know why because their actions towards me did not change. They were still gracious and accepting.  But the information that I had been given caused me to no longer trust them.

I had become uncomfortable with being in the presence of the same young women who for months had greeted me warmly and respectfully; who had not insulted, ridiculed, or attempted to exclude me. They hadn’t changed, I had.  I had become aware of something about them, although that something was evident from our first encounter.

The uneasiness that Adam and Eve must have felt after discovering their nakedness caused them to conceal the parts of their bodies that were different. Similarly, I was unnerved by the discovery that for months I had unknowingly dallied regularly in the midst of drug addicts and prostitutes. Like Adam and Eve, I wanted to avoid looking at my acquaintances. They frightened me and made me uncomfortable.

My Maastricht train station awakening illustrates perfectly the ambiguity of the arguments for and against giving information.  On the one hand, learning about the activities that were taking place around me may have saved me from harm. On the other hand, the information absolutely changed my perceptions, for the worse, about a place I once enjoyed and the people with whom I had once felt perfectly comfortable.

I don’t know whether it was ignorant bliss or blind ignorance that kept me from seeing what was taking place around me. I just know that the knowledge of it erased the ease and joy I had once felt about relaxing at the Maastricht train station.



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